Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stone disk at Gamone

[This is a rewritten version of an article posted yesterday. The initial version of this article contained factual errors, which I've corrected.]

After purchasing my Gamone property, almost fifteen years ago (notarial document signed on 26 January, Australia Day, 1994), I discovered, among my newfound possessions, a stone disk.

The diameter of this heavy object is 76 cm and its thickness is 10 cm. The hole in the center, for the axle, is a square of width 4 cm. A decade ago, I was honored by the visit of the former Choranche postman, born here in my house at Gamone, Gustave Rey [1910-2001]. He used to ride a bicycle to deliver mail all around, and up as far as Presles. An unbelievable, heroic character! He gave me precious information that enabled me to write a lengthy article about the old vineyards of Choranche that has earned me my local reputation (which I owe entirely to Gustave) of being an authority about the ancient wine industry in Choranche.

Gustave laughed when he saw the stone disk leaning up against a linden tree. "We transformed this huge slab of stone into an outdoor coffee table. It weighs a ton. Then, one day, the wooden support suddenly broke. The stone fell on a guest and broke his leg." Having had a leg broken, myself, on the slopes of Gamone, I was attached to this story. It made me feel that our respective fractures represent some kind of common Gamonian destiny. The only thing that worries me at times, in this region where rocks are constantly falling from the mountain slopes, is that, one day, a huge hunk of stone might crush me entirely... but I don't really believe in the likelihood of such a calamity.

Meanwhile, my stone disk has remained posed against the giant linden tree, accompanied by an assortment of ancient blocks of limestone, at the entry into Gamone. The question remains: What was purpose of this disk? I imagined that it might be a millstone, used to transform cereals into flour, or maybe to press walnuts to extract their oil.

Not far from Gamone, at a mountain site named Ecouges, archaeologists have been working on the ruins of an ancient Chartreux monastery dating from the early 12th century.

Natacha took these photos of the site in the summer of 2005.

I learned with interest yesterday that, in the context of the exploration of these monastic ruins, archaeologists had discovered a major 12th-century quarry for the manufacture of millstones. So, I sent off a photo of my stone disk to Alain Belmont, the history professor at the university in Grenoble who's in charge of explorations at the Ecouges site. He replied immediately that, judging from the photo, my disk looked more like a grindstone, used for sharpening cutting tools, than a millstone. In fact, I should have realized this, right from the start, because I've seen sufficiently many old grindstones and millstones in the region to recognize the difference. Millstones are installed in a horizontal position, above a concave stone that holds the product that is being ground. And a considerable amount of energy is required, often from a stream, to turn the millstone. A grindstone, on the other hand, is set up vertically in a stout wooden frame, and it is turned by hand. My grindstone was probably used to sharpen tools such as this vineyard implement that I found at Gamone:

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